Editor’s note: it’s been more than four months since I have left Southern California, and I am so excited to live vicariously through our amazing Sam Spector on this trip! Don’t miss all his writing by clicking here. Also, as circumstances are constantly changing in this time of global pandemic, please check current conditions and governmental recommendations before planning a trip.
It is summer of 2020 and if you bring up the local election on Orcas Island, the conversation turns tense quickly. Mayor Luna is in a fierce reelection battle but is currently leading in the polls. I asked a local Mayor Luna supporter about her thoughts on the other candidates. “Mayor Luna has experience and steps up in challenging situations, her opponent, on the other hand is a chicken!” one local commented. This charge that Mayor Luna’s challenger is a chicken is of course complete slander… he is actually a rooster, and Mayor Luna is a golden retriever. Every year, this island, which many celebrities call their vacation home, holds its charity-benefit election where local pets are sponsored for island mayor. This type of election seems appropriate for a place that has stunning views at every turn and kind locals who learn your name even when you are a weekend tourist, where your moments of tranquility will be interrupted solely by the cry of a bald eagle overhead, and where spotting deer is as common as coming across people. In a world that has become overrun by chaos, Orcas Island represents an example of place that shows how things should be, and it could be your destination for summer 2020. (Editor’s note: again, please remember to check local recommendations before booking travel right now so as not to overload any systems during Covid. And travel responsibly, practicing distancing, wearing a mask, and other CDC-recommended prevention techniques.)
Campaign signs are everywhere!
With my passport sadly collecting dust, I decided that a trip to Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands in Washington State, where I would be about a mile away from the maritime border with Canada, would be the place I should go. The San Juan Islands are often considered the jewel of the Pacific Northwest, and if you want to escape the smoldering heat of wherever else you live, the 70 degree average summer temperature will be reason enough to entice you to visit this slice of paradise. Though there are upwards of 400 islands that comprise the San Juans, in Washington there are four that are populated and tourist friendly: the main, more populated San Juan Island; the tiny, 240-person sparsely populated Shaw Island; the scenic, quiet Lopez Island; and the mountainous Orcas Island. Each island has its own flavor and one could easily spend a week island hopping and experiencing each one, but also each island has plenty to do that would make for a wonderful week or weekend. Orcas Island feels to me to have a bit of the best of every island and thus was the island that I chose for a few days of respite.
Getting to Orcas Island is part of the fun itself. In order to get to the San Juan Islands, you will need to go through the beautiful seaside town of Anacortes. While there, take a detour to Deception Pass State Park, featuring a beautiful rocky beach and one of the most striking bridges that you will find anywhere connecting the mainland to Whidbey Island. In Anacortes, you and your vehicle will take a ferry to Orcas Island (make sure you make your ferry reservation online in advance!). The hourlong boat journey weaving through the various forested islands will be one of the most scenic moments in your lifetime.
The ferry is part of the fun
Once you arrive at Orcas Island, you have two choices: jump into an action-packed adventure or relax while watching stunning, 180-degree views from anywhere on the island of the various bays and harbors as well as Rosario Strait. This access to the water offers more than breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, but rather plenty of activity. There are numerous places on the island where you can either rent sea kayaks or hire a guide to take you around to some of Orcas’ best spots. Though the island is actually named for a Spanish explorer, it is not uncommon to see pods of orca whales year-round with many claiming that these islands are the best place to see them. Aboard a whale-watching expedition you may see orcas and also gray, minke, and humpback whales with tour operators guaranteeing that you will spot these magnificent creatures. The bays and harbors also provide beaches with tidepools where you can find many crabs, shellfish, and other marine life. If you prefer freshwater though, not to worry, Orcas Island has you covered with several lakes within the island, with perhaps the best being the beautiful Cascade Lake inside the Moran State Park. This lake offers camping, a 2-mile scenic loop-trail around the perimeter, and also serves as a great place for swimming or renting a paddle boat or kayak.
While in the Moran State Park, another must-do is Mt. Constitution, the 2,398-foot mountain, which is the highest peak in the San Juan Islands and the second highest island summit in the lower 48 states. Whether you ambitiously hike the nearly 7-mile steep incline or drive the winding road to the top, the clearing that awaits will leave a lifelong impression. At the summit, be dazzled as you look over the island, the surrounding islands, the Rosario Strait, and beyond that mighty Mt. Baker, one of Washington’s five volcanic peaks. Pack a lunch for your journey so that you can sit and truly take in one of the natural treasures that America has to offer.
The view from Mt. Constitution
At the bottom of the mountain, enjoy a short (less than one mile) hike to a series of waterfalls ending with the impressive Cascade Falls at the bottom. While you hike, there is a decent chance that the only other journeyers that you will encounter are the indigenous deer that do not seem to be fazed by people.
Cascade Falls. Just look at all that green!
If Orcas Island is sounding a bit rugged for you thus far, well the town of Eastsound with its quaint restaurants and art galleries might be perfect for you. Peruse a bookstore, eat a locally made ice cream in the park, or admire the various paintings and sculptures for sale in the seaside shops as you stroll at your leisure. Even before Governor Jay Inslee instituted a mask requirement for the state, one was enforced in the islands and locals will politely remind tourists to please put on a mask if they are seen without one. Likewise, hotels are only booking at half occupancy to restrict exposure to COVID-19; in fact at the time of this writing (July 7, 2020), there were only 20 confirmed cases and no deaths in the collective San Juan Islands out of 16,000 inhabitants, making me feel safer traveling than staying home.
One of the locals came to greet me!
Orcas Island is also a dream destination for any foodie with its many farm-to-table restaurants throughout the island. Whether it is eating oysters from one of the local oyster farms (which this rabbi did not do but heard were amazing) or eating tapas at Eastsound’s Barnacle Restaurant, the flavors of Orcas will awake your taste buds. I would like to give a special thank you for the many great suggestions and hospitality from the staff at Visit San Juans, who turned me on to the best restaurant of the trip, Kingfish in West Sound. Enjoy the view from their patio of the marina and indulge on one of the local beers or wines from the island that they offer while you choose from a variety of culinary options. The personable and lively chef will be sure to proudly let you know that much of the produce was picked by him personally at the OrcaSong Farm on the island. Though I am not known as the healthiest eater, the freshness of the Salish Sablefish Salad was reason enough to want to come back to Orcas Island. Yet, the highlight of the dinner was (typical for me) the dessert, the Orca-“Sage” ice cream, made with local sage and chamomile cookies picked from the farm. But as locals know Kingfish to be the place for decadent dining on the island, be sure to make reservations as those who did not walked away sadly to go eat somewhere else.
Such an awesome meal at Kingfish!!
Whether you are outdoorsy or prefer a small town bed and breakfast relaxing getaway, a romantic trip for two or a family-friendly adventure, while staying safe during these difficult times, make the San Juan Islands, and especially Orcas, your destination for summer 2020; the only downside is that it is hard to go home when you are leaving paradise.
Note: thank you to Visit San Juans for graciously hosting me at Kingfish. It was a stunning meal!
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